Here's the imposing checklist of talent that could have been playing in the Pac-10 Conference this season: Ryan Anderson, Jerryd Bayless, Chase Budinger, DeMar DeRozan, Taj Gibson, James Harden, Spencer Hawes, Jrue Holiday, Brook and Robin Lopez, Kevin Love, O.J. Mayo and Russell Westbrook.
Each of them could have had 2009-10 eligibility, but all left early for the NBA.
Is the Pac-10 down this season?
"Probably," said Cal coach Mike Montgomery.
"Obviously," said Kevin O'Neill, first-year coach at USC.
Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said, "That's almost like the guy that can really shoot, aside from the fact that his arm's broken. And you ask, 'Why can't he shoot better?' There's been a mass exodus of top talent and the league hasn't had a chance to recruit past that yet."
With Pac-10 play beginning Thursday, only one team — Romar's Huskies — is nationally ranked, and the league's postseason prospects are dimmer than they've been in years.
"Down is not having six teams in the tournament," said O'Neill, alluding to the fact that the Pac-10 has landed six NCAA berths each of the past three seasons.
Cut that number in half, and you've got a reasonable estimation of this season's NCAA qualifiers from the Pac-10.
So, who wins the conference?
"Leaving our team out, I know Cal will be up there at the top," Romar said. "We're just working so we can try to be the best team."
Cal's limitations — especially its lack of a physical interior presence — were exposed in losses to Syracuse, Ohio State and Kansas. But those three teams do not play in the Pac-10, and there is plenty to like about the Bears. They have excellent perimeter shooters led by Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher, more experience than any team in the conference, adequate depth and a coach who has been to the top of the Pac-10.
The Huskies, led by senior forward Quincy Pondexter and sophomore guard Isaiah Thomas, pose a serious threat to Cal even though heralded freshman Abdul Gaddy hasn't yet blossomed. UW is deep, athletic, excellent in transition and nearly impossible to beat in Seattle. But the Huskies' inside game is not exceptional, they don't shoot well from the 3-point arc, and they did lose once at home a year ago — to Cal.
Picked ninth by the Pac-10 media two months ago, the Trojans' prospects did an about face when fifth-year senior Mike Gerrity, a transfer from Charlotte, became eligible and took over the point guard job. He has averaged 14.8 points and 4.3 assists in four games while giving the Trojans the organization to beat Tennessee, Saint Mary's and UNLV in recent weeks. A nagging concern: The club's favorable impression comes from a two-week sampling.
4. Arizona State
Gone is NBA lottery pick James Harden, but the Sun Devils' defense is as sticky as ever. ASU is surrendering just 54.5 points per game and has held seven opponents to 52 points or fewer. Senior Derek Glasser directs a perimeter-based offense that is averaging nearly nine 3-point baskets per game. If those 3-pointers don't fall on the road, the Sun Devils could have problems scoring.
5. Washington State
Sophomore Klay Thompson has expanded his game and is the Pac-10's leading scorer at 25 points per game. But the revelation is freshman point guard Reggie Moore, who is contributing 12.6 points and 5.1 assists and minimizing turnovers in an offense scoring 20 points per game more under new coach Ken Bone than a year ago with Tony Bennett.
Nic Wise gives the Wildcats a savvy senior at the point and 6-8, 235-pound forward Derrick Williams is the most productive freshman in the Pac-10. But the Wildcats entered the week ranked last in the conference in scoring defense, and that was before allowing 99 points to BYU. Miller figures to get it going again in Tucson, but even he has said UA's streak of 25 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances is in jeopardy.
As hard as it is to imagine the Bruins sinking to seventh place, it's equally tempting to pick them lower. There are concerns about point guard, free-throw shooting and defense. Sophomore guard Malcolm Lee is emerging as a scorer and freshman Reeves Nelson has averaged 15.8 points over the past four games as a more efficient low-post alternative to Drew Gordon, who transferred a month ago.
8. Oregon State
No one could believe the Beavers improved as much as they did a year ago, and it's just as surprising they've slipped so much this season. A home loss to Sacramento State? Still, their defense can cause fits, guard Calvin Haynes seems to have found his shot and there is a potential ace in the hole in freshman guard Roberto Nelson, still awaiting NCAA clearance.
Is erratic sophomore center Michael Dunigan — with an 18.7 scoring average the past three games — for real? Are senior guard TaJuan Porter's gimpy ankle and 3-point shot finally healthy? Will the Ducks stay together if coach Ernie Kent's job status becomes the topic du jour? Lots of questions. Do the Ducks have answers?
Versatile senior forward Landry Fields and sophomore guard Jeremy Green combined to average nearly 40 points through the club's first 11 games, but there is little to complement them on offense. The Cardinal has been competitive in losses to elite teams. But they are not a good rebounding or defensive team and their lack of depth leaves them vulnerable to injury.
Contact Jeff Faraudo at firstname.lastname@example.org.